Winter 2016
Number 30

Book Review - What Makes the Islamic State Tick?

Michael P. Pregent

William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 256pp. $18.38.

Will McCants is a true scholar of Islam. A former State Department senior advisor for countering violent extremism with a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, he now directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, and serves as an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. Over the past two years, McCants has used these storied credentials to become one of the foremost authorities on today’s most significant terrorist threat. Which is why his new book, The ISIS Apocalypse, has instantly become essential reading for all those interested in the true nature of the group now known as the Islamic State.

The ISIS Apocalypse is part of a larger body of work on the Islamic State produced by McCants. It follows a short, 19-page biography of the group’s enigmatic leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and expands on the themes touched upon therein. The ISIS Apocalypse goes well beyond the standard analysis of the group prevalent in Washington circles, which sees the group as just another offshoot of al-Qaeda, and delves into the story of what ISIS is and how, in many places, it has come to replace its parent organization in both profile and popularity. This explanation is much needed; after all, the establishment of an Islamic “State” runs counter to the strategies of al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants who believe that the first priority of jihad should be ridding Muslim countries of all western influence.

The Islamic State, by contrast, is propelled by “End of Days” prophecies, and embraces the imminent arrival of the Apocalypse. Its message is that the caliphate must be established now in order to welcome the Mahdi, Islam’s messiah, who will lead the faithful in the final battle against the infidel (non-Muslims) as well as false followers of the Prophet (the Shi’a).

U.S. military counterinsurgency operations (COIN-OPS) have as a basic tenet the need to win the hearts and minds of the population. Most Islamic groups likewise see this as a requirement, at least in their initial steps of establishing control. Accordingly, Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of al-Qaeda directed their affiliates, of which ISIS was once one, to concentrate on providing basic services rather than on the imposition of the Hudud, the extreme punishments dictated by sharia law.

ISIS, however, does not. Both previously and today, it considers itself the apex of Islamic faith and the final iteration of prophecy. It is at war with any and all who cannot see or adhere to this vision. It has no patience for other viewpoints, even from groups that also wish to see the creation of the caliphate but believe now is not the time. With the end of days at hand, the Islamic State sees no reason to practice good governance or show tolerance to the Muslim populations under its control.

This does not mean that ISIS isn’t modern, however. Even as it adheres to the strictest form of fundamentalist Islam, the group has emerged as a pioneer in the worlds of marketing and branding. There is nowhere in the world today where the black flag of ISIS is not known or flown. That is a world away from 2006, when the original Islamic State first announced itself, with no flag and purportedly under the command of al-Qaeda. The flag emerged over time, as a symbol for the faithful to rally around. And, as with all things ISIS, its design was inspired by an interpretation of Islamic text.

Such subjective interpretations abound. Neither the black flag nor the apocalypse is found in the Quran. Rather, reference to them is located in the hadith, a compendium that purports to expand on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad that was written years or centuries after his death. ISIS selectively chooses from the hadith to justify its teachings, as so many other fundamentalists do. But ISIS is more absolute than others, and its mythos—steeped in anti-Shi’a fervor and extreme eschatology—was greatly strengthened by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent chaos there.

The Arab Spring contributed as well. While the West saw the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as a collective move on the part of the Arabs toward democracy, many in the Arab world saw it as a sign of the “End of Days”—further adding to the Islamic State’s messianic appeal. A 2012 Pew poll showed that fully half of Arabs polled believed that the Mahdi would return very soon. The group has capitalized upon this trend by drawing on prophetic interpretations of the hadith that see the land of al-Sham (Syria) as the location of the final battle between the Islamic umma, or community, and the unbelievers.

At the core of The ISIS Apocalypse is a sobering conclusion: the group is operating under a “win-win” formula. Given its appeal among young Sunni military-aged males, the more the West ignores the rise of ISIS, the more it has the breathing room to flourish. But the more the United States and its allies engage this terrorist army, the more they feed into its IS apocalyptic prophecy.

All of which begs the question of what happens after ISIS is defeated. McCants asks, “How will the jihadists evaluate the demise of the Islamic State? Will it prove to them that Bin Laden was right? Or will it prove that the State just needed to double down on its strategy?” The answer to those questions is vitally important, and will shape American policy in the years ahead.

Michael P. Pregent is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is a senior Middle East analyst, a former adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.